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FDA Offers Sweeping Rules to Stop Food Contamination

2013-01-04 17:18:00

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The Food and Drug Administration has proposed new food safety rules requiring farmers and food companies to be more vigilant in the wake of deadly outbreaks in peanuts, cantaloupe and leafy greens.

While they may be sweeping to other parts of the nation, the rules have been standard operating practices for years for fresh fruit and vegetable growers in the desert Southwest, including Yuma County and Southern California.

In fact, farmers here have been pioneers in the development of food safety practices for the production, harvest and processing of their lettuce and other fresh vegetable crops, said Kurt Nolte, executive director of the Yuma County Cooperative Extension.

Now those practices, spelled out in the California and Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing agreements, serve as a model for the new federal rules that will be applied to farmers nationwide, Nolte said.

“Arizona and California growers have been savvy about food safety for years, even before the spinach E-coli outbreak in 2006,” Nolte said. “They’ve stepped up and been proactive.”

The federal regulations are aimed at reducing the estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness. Just since last summer, outbreaks of listeria in cheese and salmonella in peanut butter, mangoes and cantaloupe have been linked to more than 400 illnesses and as many as seven deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The actual number of those sickened is likely much higher.

The FDA’s proposed rules would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, addressing what advocates refer to as the “four Ws” — water, waste, workers and wildlife — to include making sure workers’ hands are washed, irrigation water is clean and that animals stay out of fields. Food manufacturers will have to submit food safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean.

Nolte noted that farmers here already routinely check their irrigation water to ensure it’s free of contaminants, provide porta potties and hand-washing stations in the fields and train workers in their importance, erect fences to keep out both wildlife and domestic animals, use soundmakers to scare off birds, avoid harvesting areas where animal waste has been found and instruct workers in the sanitation of lettuce knives and other equipment they use.

Therefore, he said, he doesn’t think FDA’s new rules will have a significant impact on farmers in Yuma as they’ve adhered to the practices for years. However, he added, he applauds the issuance of the U.S. guidelines to protect public health as well as the industry that produces healthy foods.

The new rules come exactly two years to the day President Barack Obama’s signed food safety legislation passed by Congress, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010.

The produce rule would mark the first time the FDA has had real authority to regulate food on farms. In an effort to stave off protests from farmers, the farm rules are tailored to apply only to certain fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest risk, like berries, melons, leafy greens and other foods that are usually eaten raw. A farm that produces green beans that will be canned and cooked, for example, would not be regulated.

Such flexibility, along with the growing realization that outbreaks are bad for business, has brought the produce industry and much of the rest of the food industry on board as Congress and the FDA have worked to make food safer.

Nolte agreed. “The ripple effect of food safety concerns has a catastrophic effect on the industry,” he said, adding that the spinach industry is still recovering from the 2006 outbreak traced to that crop.

The farm and manufacturing rules are only one part of the food safety law. The bill also authorized more surprise inspections by the FDA and gave the agency additional powers to shut down food facilities. In addition, the law required stricter standards on imported foods. The agency said it will soon propose other overdue rules to ensure that importers verify overseas food is safe and to improve food safety audits overseas.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.